Reviews and how to take them

A recent post on Musings Of An Aussie Writer that made direct reference to me and reviews of my work got me thinking about reviews. A lot of people react badly to reviews, even when they’re primarily positive. I don’t know why.

As far as I’m concerned, as an author, once I put my work out there I have no right to tell people what to think of it. I always make my writing the best I think it can be before I let it go public. Often that’s the only way it can or will go public.

After that I always remind myself of that old adage: “You can’t please all the people all the time.” I just hope to please as many people as possible as often as possible. I at least want to please more people than I piss off.

There’s another old adage that’s more writing related: “The reader is always right.”

If a reader interprets something I’ve written differently to how I intended, that’s my fault. It doesn’t matter what I want the reader to experience, or what I meant by a certain passage, the reader is always right. The way they read something and interpret it is their reality and there’s no point in me saying, “But you don’t get it! You don’t understand my genius!” It was my writing that resulted in their interpretation. If that’s not what I wanted them to think or feel then I need to learn from that and improve my craft.

When I send out a book for review I’m asking for that reviewer’s honest opinion of it. I’m not asking them to tell everyone how great it is. I’m asking them to tell everyone what they thought of it, and I desperately hope that they think it’s great.

I’ve yet to have a really scathing review for either RealmShift or MageSign. I’m very pleased and humbled about that. It’s become pretty evident from many reviews that my second book is an improvement on my first. I’m really pleased about that too – it’s much better than the other way around.

Certainly reviewers have had issues with a number of things in both books. They’re right about that. Other people might disagree with them. They’re right too. I genuinely mean it when I say that I’m happy if a review is overall positive and pretty much says, “I was a bit disappointed by this and that, but on the whole this is a good read and you should check it out.” Obviously, the more glowing the review the happier I am, but anything that brings attention to my books without downright slamming them is invaluable as far as I’m concerned.

BT’s Horrorscope review of RealmShift finished this way:

“Still, it is definitely worth the time spent reading it as Baxter manages to work with an intriguing list of characters, throws a thought provoking explanation of religion at the reader, and keeps everything moving at a rapid pace, while making some nice observations about today’s society and those within it. I look forward to reading the second instalment, MageSign, to see where the authors goes from here.”

His Horrorscope review of MageSign finished this way:

“Baxter has delivered a book which is better than the first one, which was pretty good to start with. If this trend continues, I’ll be looking forward to the next instalment.”

Reagrdless of various issues he had with the books (you can read the full reviews by clicking the links), these are the final thoughts that will resonate with people that read the review and they are the final thoughts of BT as a reviewer. I’m really happy with a result like that. One day I hope to get reviews for my work that do nothing but sing the praises of my flawless novels, but I can’t expect that from the outset. I can’t expect that for a long time yet, if ever.

And as for the things that reviewers have raised as issues within the work, things that made those reviews three or four star reviews rather five star reviews, well, I’ve certainly paid attention to those. I’ve thought about what’s been said, why it was said and what I can do to stop reviewers saying things like that in the future. Sometimes a reviewer’s negative comments will reflect more on the reviewer than the writer – a person’s personal preferences are often going to be at odds with mine. But it’s my job to recognise the things that I can use to improve my craft and work at implementing those every time I write something. If I’m precious about reviews all the time and just huff and puff about these useless reviewers that have no idea what they’re on about then I’ll never improve as a writer.


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18 thoughts on “Reviews and how to take them

  1. I agree that as a writer it is always your responsibility to continue to hone your craft and do your best to ensure that what you’ve written, how it’s structured and the words used leave the reader clear about what you intended.

    However… People are people their beliefs and attitudes and just general current state of mind will always colour how they interpret something. You absolutely cannot be responsible for that.

    In some ways, writing is a lot harder than the spoken word as there is no easy way to type the nuances of inflection and intonation we use verbally. On the other hand you have the opportunity to craft the words carefully and rework them before they end up being ‘interpreted’ by your readers – a luxury not afforded by the spoken word. Either way, once out there, words cannot be undone, so as long as you have done your best to ensure the right words have been used in the right way, part of the resonsiblitity of how they are taken lies with the reader.

  2. Graham, you’re absolutely right. But the number of people that just get it wrong )for whatever reason) are in the minority. Most people will interpret the written word how it’s intended or how it’s written. It’s the writer’s job to make those two things the same!

  3. Thanks for the link back, buddy. You are, of course, absolutely right in saying the reader is right and it’s up to the writer to make what they meant to say, and what the reader is supposed to read, one and the same thing. Perception is reality and it’s our job as a writer to get the reader perceiving our lovingly crafted environment as we wanted it to be seen, and to set that reality firmly into the subconscious.

    Glad I could give you something to blog about. :c)

  4. How to take reviews once your book is published?


    Just ignore them. Once the book is out there, there’s nothing you can change, and any arguments you make will end up sounding silly. If you know the reviewer personally, smile politely and say thank you, nothing else. *
    Reviews are for readers (and even with readers, their influence is doubtful), not for authors. Stop worrying about reviews, and write the next book.

    * I do think you can react if the reviewer got facts wrong or is rude, but you have to carefully calculate if the aggravation is worth it. Mostly, it isn’t.

  5. Patty, I disagree completely. For sure, reviews are primarily for readers, but a writer can learn an awful lot about their stuff from reviews. Certainly, you don’t get into a debate with the reviewer, but you don’t ignore them. Learn from them and write the next book better!

  6. In my non-fiction, I never relied on post-publication reviews to tell me what issues people might have with my books. I wouldn’t consider sending out a book without being aware of those issues – I would know them already. The structure of the book was a trade-off between various factors. It was the way I designed the book, for a reason, and it was the consensus of everyone involved to go ahead with it. As you say, you can’t please anyone.
    In my later discussions with reviewers, I often found that they adhered to a format: general overview, good point, not so good point.
    There was a time I agreed with you, but now I’ve reviewed books myself, I see how formulaic post-publication reviewing is. I read book reviews to tell me what sort of book I’m getting, in terms of storyline, and then I make up my own opinion as to whether or not I might like it, based on subject matter.

  7. Whilst reviews can indeed be “formulaic” in that they tend to sometimes – not always – be put together according to a certain basic workable structure (just like an essay has identifiable parts, i.e. introduction, body, conclusion, etc) I don’t see how this negates the value of their content, to readers *or* to writers? In fact, it is often the necessity of adhering to a basic structure that lends reviews whatever objectivity they may manage to possess (as opposed to being merely an unbalanced rant about how crap the work was, or conversely, how splendid it was).

    A review is, at the end of the day, someone’s opinion – often, it’s the opinion of someone who knows what they’re talking about, though of course that doesn’t make them “right”. What you choose to invest in that opinion is a personal decision, but Alan is quite correct in that a little decorum is called for, particularly in terms of how you react *publicly*. Although, in saying that, nor do I agree with the school of thought that says a writer should *never* have anything to say publicly about a bad review. A writer has a right to express *their* opinion, too – but wisely.

    I would also disagree with the assertion that reviews should simply be ignored – whilst some of them may be worthy of such treatment, to arbitrarily disregard them without exception is almost certainly a mistake.

  8. I see a lot of writers get far too much in a flap about reviews, while they *should* be getting on with writing the next thing. By the time a book is published, you are well aware of its potential shortcomings. Glance at the review (ignore might have been to strong a term), but for crying out loud, move on. You can’t change the book. Write a different one.

  9. My friend has been an art reviewer for more than a decade. She has always maintained that a good reviewer looks at what an artist set out to do and how well they’ve achieved it.

    There is a definite art in reviewing and some reviewers have it, and others don’t. There is nothing more nerve shattering than putting something up for review – but when you see that people ‘get’ what you’ve tried to achieve it is both a humbling and heartening experience.

    When we created Chinese Whisperings we wanted an anthology of short stories that a reader would not be able to put down. Turns out that’s what was written in both the reviews which have come through to date (no where in our PR stuff is this written!)

    There is no opportunity to learn from a wider audience if we ignore or pay little attention to the reviews we receive. It would be like sending a manuscript out to a beta reader and then ignoring completely what they had said.

    I agree that readers will always put their own filters on it, right down to the particular mood they were in when they sat down to read. They are also influenced by expectations – of past work. The impetus for us to keep improving and evolving as both wordsmiths and story tellers.

  10. Without wanting to appear too pedantic – although I *am* :op – I don’t believe any writer can ever be well aware of *all* of their work’s potential shortcomings (or indeed, its potential brilliance). Ain’t nobody that omniscient, especially in regard to something so subjective, and something they are so very close to. Perhaps this is why writers sometimes react strongly to reviews – being confronted with a view you genuinely may never have considered previously about the work you poured yourself into for months or years can be very, well, confronting. People process things in different ways. I do believe it is important *to* process it before moving on. It’s not *all* there is to improving at our craft, but its definitely a part of the overall spectrum.

  11. Felicity, I believe I’m the exception to the rule. I know all the shortcomings in my writing and am fully aware of any issues long before I submit anything.

    At least, that was the warm fuzzy thought process. I’ve since found out my thoughts are exactly the same as nearly every prospective writer out there. It wasn’t until I had a couple of people beta-read my first works that I realised there were a heap of things that didn’t quite work or make sense, either because they were possibly based on some somewhat thin research via Wikipedia (The irrefutable fount of everything) or because I wrote them in conjunction with an idea that never made it in. Having read my own works innumerable times means I no longer spot potential flaws as well as someone else because I can just about recite it and tend to skip over bits.

    While it may be safe to ignore the odd review because:
    1. The reviewer has a personal vendetta against you for some reason;
    2. They genuinely don’t get it;
    3. Their head is firmly lodged somewhere unsanitary
    or a myriad of other reasons, if you’re getting consistent reviews from several sources pointing out weaknesses and potential improvements then you’re doing yourself a disservice if you ignore them.

    I’ll disagree with Alan somewhat in that the reader is not always necessarily right, but they are the people forking out their hard-earned for your work.

    It’s the problem of how to coach Federa at tennis. You know he’s better than you, but you are still able to watch his play and spot various weaknesses, even if you couldn’t do any better yourself. I know I’ve read many more stories than I’ll ever write.

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